Dear New Zealand

At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand.  It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches.  The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.

People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis.  The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base.  Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space.  After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base.  It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17.  When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry.  It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.

When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island.  I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it.  It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well.  So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in.  My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut.  When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found.  I told her there was no real way for me to get it.  I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch.  I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back.  But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses.  And sure enough it happened.  I was shocked.  The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.

As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant.  It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty.  A little Maori woman ran the shop.  We chatted for a bit.  She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary.  I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu.  She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it.  Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten.  It was far better.  Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.

When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland.  As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security.  This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.”  The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I?  This country is amazing.’

New Zealand is gorgeous.  Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains.  I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t.  The people are incredibly warm and laid back.  They are thrill seekers.  They invented bungee jumping.  They have a ridiculous amount of sheep.  I really wanted to move there.  I still do.  It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.

Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read.  It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal.  I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with.  One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree.  At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.

Yet I find that I am not surprised.  If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies.  We live in a world that has extremism.  The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist.  They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair.  The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate.  Just different costumes.  If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember.  I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity.  Be who you are, just do it better.  This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you.  Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate.  For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving.  Grieve with them.  Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans.  They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different.   Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.

Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

Can Multiculturalism Work?

What is multiculturalism?  Here is something that I am for, and think is a positive thing, but a recent interview I listened to made me wonder if I was perhaps defining it differently than other people.  Not that I am necessarily wrong, but it is perhaps a term that easily lends itself to some interpretation.  Perhaps part of the reason is a definition of what we consider culture likely also varies from person to person.

The argument has come up many times in Europe and North America in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis that multiculturalism doesn’t work.   My father-in-law in Poland has even joined the parade of fear over refugees and said he’s against “multy-culty”.  Many Americans describe the U.S. as a melting pot and promote that as an important part of a successful nation.  But are we really a melting pot?  It’s clear when you look around there are plenty of cultures celebrating events that are important to them.  Whether it’s religious holidays, whether it’s going to the church or temple of their religion.  There are also plenty of restaurants catering to different ethnic cuisines.  We can see the evidence of different cultural norms among African-Americans and among Hispanic groups.

So, what is it that we are actually afraid of changing?  It seems that when most people say multiculturalism won’t work it’s targeting specific values that another culture holds, or is perceived to hold that is different than values held already in the country.  But since there are clearly many diverse cultural practices that go on already that don’t bother anybody is it reasonable to say something so broad like multiculturalism doesn’t work?  I don’t believe so.  That doesn’t mean that bringing in other cultures into your own society won’t have problems.  Part of the reason why the story of immigration keeps repeating itself with one generation of immigrants being criticized by the generations before is that we generally don’t trust what we really don’t know.  But we live in the age of information so there should be a bunch of stuff we do know.   So let’s take a look, and for a little bit, ignore the fact that often in these situations the experiential knowledge goes a lot further than book knowledge.

When it comes to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan let’s face it, a large majority of these immigrants are going to be Muslims and fear of Islam is at a high today.  While extremism exists in every religion right now, a good portion of it is coming from Islam, so perhaps there is a good reason to have more fear, even if that fear compared to other things we have to fear in this world, are exaggerated.  Once again I don’t want to get into any No True Scotsman arguments, because we can say extremists are not truly followers of Islam, but they claim they are so let’s go with the idea that whatever religion people claim they are affiliated with that’s their religion.  It’s true to say that whatever small percentage of Muslims we bring into this country that are jihadists, the more immigrants we take, the numbers go up.  So I think this is always worth paying attention to since a society should always be aiming to reduce violent crime.  But for now let’s just throw away the extremist views and look at these societies in general.  We have very traditional values.  Women do not have equal rights in Islam.  They are expected to dress modestly because they are a temptation to men.  They try to protect their followers from information that would cast doubt or refute tenets of their religion.  Their governments do not have separation of church and state.  Islam has strong rewards for commitment to the religion and strong punishment for those who are apostates (both on this plane of existence and the other ones).  They have no tolerance for homosexuality.  Do any of these qualities sound familiar?  They should, they are the very similar attitudes held by a large portion of the religion right here in the U.S.  What’s very odd about it, is that the same people who have so much in common with all these potential new immigrants are the most against them coming in, and it’s the left that is happy to important such illiberal values into the U.S.

Now before you fight me on this, let it sink in a bit.  If this is the case, what’s going on.  Are we all very confused?  No, but perhaps we are a little confused.  First of all we shouldn’t expect two very similar religions to coexist happily.  It’s easy to see why to very conservative groups with slight variations on “The Truth” don’t want to share space.   It’s also not hard to see that Islam doesn’t have a high degree of tolerance towards free speech, something that many, if not most on the right, consider to be one of our most important values as an American. It is also isn’t difficult to understand why people on the left would be side with Muslim immigrants.  Certainly, when it comes to the refugees there is going to be a great deal of desire to reduce human suffering.  But let’s say, to a large degree many people, whether they support immigration or not, are moved my human suffering.  From an ideological point of view, we’d expect many people to be sensitive to the oppression they’ve endured at the hands of religious intolerance, racism, and misogyny. It’s not completely irrational, therefore, to be against allowing large groups of people that are experiencing oppression and suffering to be painted with a broad-brush stroke simply for being different.  We’re all too familiar with what happens when such attitudes persist in a society.  We know the harm that stereotyping can play and how it closes doors to meaningful conversations which can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutual understanding.  There is value in diversity and adding some might not be a bad idea.  This at least for me is at the heart of a multicultural society.

My concern is that we seemed to have reached a level of political correctness where it is not okay to criticize Islam, out of fear we will be supporting attitudes on the right.  And I would like to believe that there are many people on the right who might be similarly scared of expressing empathy to humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in case they are seen as supporting the left.  Identity politics is not helping.  We have to have some honest conversations about what we can tolerate in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  As a liberal there are certain harmful views that I will not tolerate in any culture, and do not want to see them increasingly practiced in my country or any country.  Many of the Syrian refugees are very educated, which is helpful, but harmful cultural practices, particularly attitudes towards gender or sexual orientation are not dependent on the level of education.  It’s not unreasonable to be against importing illiberal values into our society, just as it is not unreasonable to be intolerant to illiberal values here.  It seems clear to me that multiculturalism is not impossible, but it does have limits and if you claim to be a liberal it’s of value for you to recognize that.  And on the right, the level of xenophobia and fear of terrorism is also highly disproportionate, dishonest and is not helpful to meaningful conversation.

I come from Canada and am proud to say that is one the few if not the last country that largely embraces multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we tolerate every cultural practice.  Canada can boast some of the most progressive imams in Islamic society who actively speak out against Islamic extremism.  I wonder if Canada’s inclusive attitude towards different cultures has anything to do with that?  And I am not under any illusions that racism or bigotry is absent in Canada.  It’s still a problem.  It takes time to solve such problems and I think Canada has made some impressive progress.  Growing up in Canada my view of multiculturalism was that you retain the best of your culture and adopt the best of Canada, and the nation simply gets better.  As someone who is biracial I never struggled about whether to consider myself Indian or white, I always just thought of myself as Canadian, because Canada recognized the value that other countries have brought with them to Canada.  To me, this is one of the principal differences between Canada and the U.S.  Canada definitely thinks we have some lessons for other cultures, but we are humble enough to recognize that maybe other cultures have something to teach us as while.  It seems to me that the U.S. has an attitude that it only needs to teach others, but has nothing to learn from them.  Such an attitude seems to be held by many Americans on the left and right because it seems to play out in identity politics as well.   Maybe, in the end, whether or not multiculturalism can work all depends how willing each culture is willing to listen and learn.  This is a value that we all need wherever we may live.